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By VINCE LUECKE
For kids who couldn’t yet spell tradition, we considered it a holy rite that had to be upheld at all costs. It was quite literally, a movable feast — it happened on our school bus every spring — auspiciously enough, on the ride home of the last day of school.
Looking back, it was the mother of all battles, water battles that is. It was sixth grader vs. sophomore, neighbor against neighbor and brother battling brother.
From as far back as I could remember, the last day of school before summer vacation was celebrated on Bus 12 with a water brawl, officially sanctioned, or at least tolerated, by the hippest of late 1970s and early 80s country route bus drivers, Jan Stein.
Preparations for the battle were under way several days ahead of time. At home, my brothers and I searched and fought over ammunition — empty bottles of dish detergent, shampoo, even window cleaner.
Squeeze bottles with pull tops were among our preferred weapons and it wasn’t unusual to modify bottles to better their ability to stream and squirt.
Bus ride skirmishes would begin a week or so before the last day of school. A hapless fourth-grader might come on board looking for a place to sit, books under his arms, only to be zapped in the face with watter.
“Hey,” he would squeal, promising revenge in the days ahead.
Nothing, though, could compare to the actual day of battle. At nearly every stop that morning, happy students would be waiting with heavy brown grocery bags in their arms — unusual since the last day of school for us was usually only half a day and classes were already over.
Inside were various-sized bottles, even gallon milk jugs — all filled with water. Jan smiled as we sauntered up the three steps. He didn’t have to look inside. He knew.
The ammunition was left on the bus until the ride home. Oh, how we waited impatiently for those three hours of school to crawl to a close. Finally, around noon, we hurriedly lined up for good old Bus 12, strangely giddy, even for the last day of school. “You all seem happy to go home for the summer,” the principal may have said to himself.
Still today, I wonder if he knew the reason why.
The ground rules for the battle were simple. Get each other wet, have fun and don’t hurt anyone.
Non-combatants sat up front and were off limits to getting soaked. Most were sissy boys, prissy girls or young elementary kids, suddenly nervous as bottles of family-sized bottles of Mr. Clean and Dawn dish detergent slid from paper bags.
“What are young to do with that,” a third-grade boy might ask, feeling cool at sitting in the back of the bus. The answer usually sent him scurrying to the front.
The only other rule was that no one could get wet until we were at least a quarter mile from school grounds, for us the boundary between oppression and a summer of freedom.
There was no starting gun or trumpet blast to start the melee, just the first sounds of water and shouts. Within seconds, water was everywhere, running down the aisle and splashing out of the open windows.
The sissy boys and prissy girls were turned in their seats, staring and laughing. Jan, through his mirror, kept and eye on us and smiled some more. Not once did things get out of hand.
There were no allies, only people to soak. The bus stopped occasionally, unloading dripping-wet but happy passengers. We waved farewell and went back to war.
Two seats in front of me, a girl – seemingly so sweet and proper on all other days – held a yellow mustard bottled, squeezing the final squirts of water onto the head of her screaming friends.
Nearby, a classmate of mine rubbed his eyes. Someone had forgotten to rinse their bottle of shampoo before filling it with water. “Dirty trick,” he said.
The war raged on for at least half an hour. The least-prepared quickly ran out of ammunition. Veteran warriors saved a bottle or two for a late charge; or refilled from gallon jugs, free from retaliation.
Then it was over. With empty bottles rocking on the bus floor and hair drying from the flow of air from open windows, we talked about the summer ahead, to the comforting if laborious routine of farm life that faced most of us – picking up hay, hoeing in mom’s garden and mowing grass.
How often it seems, the simpler things in our past are what we remember most.
Editor’s note: This column was first published in 2002.